Book Culture on the brink


Make text smaller Make text larger


As the end looms for the popular bookstores, their owner says government should offer small businesses the same kind of support it provides to corporate giants like Amazon


Photos



  • Book Culture owner Chris Doeblin. Photo: Emily Higginbotham




  • Doeblin started Book Culture in 1995, not long after Amazon was launched. Photo: Courtesy of Book Culture




  • The contributions of small businesses like Book Culture to city life are too often overlooked, Chris Doeblin said. Photo: Courtesy of Book Culture



“The small business storefront community generates a ton of value to New York.”

Book Culture owner Chris Doeblin



Book Culture owner Chris Doeblin thought his business had adapted to a market place dominated by Amazon. In fact, Doeblin has been dealing with the corporate giant since his store’s inception: both companies began at about the same time, Amazon in 1994, Book Culture in 1995, and both initially focused on academic textbooks.

For a while, with the support of Columbia University students and faculty, Book Culture was a success. Around 2000, though, Amazon started having a serious and damaging effect on Doeblin’s business. Revenue declined — and has continued on that trajectory ever since. But Book Culture adapted, and even expanded. It offered more new releases, literature, poetry and travel books as well as non-book goods. It created cozy spaces for children and parents to gather and read, and hosted events and readings.

“We’ve had some time to adapt to (Amazon) and I think to a certain extent we’ve caught that boulder,” Doeblin said. “It’s very unpleasant to have it around us, the boulder being Amazon, squashing us. To some extent, we almost say that we’ve weathered that.”

In fact, though, they haven’t. Book Culture’s four locations (three on the West Side and one in Long Island City) are on the brink of closing.

Minimum Wage Impact

Amazon is not totally to blame, Doeblin said. Rather, he points to the increase in the city’s minimum wage (up from $10.50 to $15 in three years) and the rapid pace with which those increases have taken effect. Still, Doeblin is invoking Amazon in his plea for the government to step in with a financial solution for his business, and small businesses throughout the city.

“This combination of talent and industry, so common in smaller businesses, is too often overlooked and not given the support and nurture that it deserves,” Doeblin wrote last week in an open letter to the community, which he penned with hopes of drawing attention to Book Culture’s dire situation. “The capital pools that allow projects like Amazon’s near entree into New York or building projects like Hudson Yards aren’t available for small businesses like ours. But they ought to be.”

Doeblin argues that the kind of government incentives offered to Amazon to open its second headquarters in Long Island City (a venture that ultimately collapsed) — including over $1 billion in refundable tax credits in exchange for job creation along with millions in state grants — should be offered to small businesses for the tax revenue they create and their contributions to the city’s economy.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer agrees that small businesses deserve more government support. And she has personal reasons for her position as well. “My husband and I are regulars at our local Book Culture, and to see it close would be devastating for the communities they serve,” Brewer said in a statement.

“Book Culture’s stores generate over $650,000 in sales tax revenue each year for the city and state,” Doeblin wrote. “We employ over 75 people at peak season and had a payroll over $1.7M last year. All of that payroll along with the $700,000 a year that we pay in rent goes right back into the New York economy.”

It May Be Too Late

Since sending his letter, Doeblin has heard from several elected officials. He’s set up meetings with Senate Deputy Leader Michael Gianaris, who represents parts of Queens, including Long Island City, Council Speaker Corey Johnson and the Small Business Association out of the mayor’s office.

But a legislative or municipal answer isn’t likely to help Book Culture, Doeblin said. He thinks it’s too late for his business. The only way to save the West Side institutions is through the private sector, and he hopes that help will come soon. The stores won’t last through the end of the year without a significant cash infusion, he said.

There is hope for other small businesses, which is why Doeblin is speaking out now. He thinks he, as well as the government, have a responsibility to do what is necessary to keep these storefronts afloat.

“Our government has to own up and find some way of legislating and providing the resources and creating an environment that is more holistically supportive of the kind of city we want to be,” Doeblin said. “That includes lots of small businesses, authentic stores doing different things, and a large group of people who have a real vested interest in New York. That means a lot of people owning stuff, not just a group of people working for a handful of companies.”

If his business closes, and as other small businesses deal with the same problems without government solutions, the city will lose its vibrancy.

“The small business storefront community generates ton of value to New York,” he said. “Obviously if all of those stores close up there’s going to be a real lack of interest in living in New York City. That’s not what anybody wants.”






Make text smaller Make text larger

Comments



MUST READ NEWS

The heat is on
NYC strategists expect longshot presidential candidate Bill de Blasio to be aggressive in the second Democratic debate. But the latest poll and money numbers are grim
Read more »
Image

A day camp with a difference
A 20th precinct police officer and a city council member team up to create a new experience for children in the commmunity
Read more »
Image

A mother’s plea
A year after Australian cyclist Madison Jane Lyden was killed on CPW, her family calls for action to prevent further deaths
Read more »
Image

The Chelsea Hotel: A never-ending story
Eight years in, delays continue to dog the renovation of the legendary 23rd Street building
Read more »
Image

Why the lights went out
Con Ed blames relay system for outage that hit Times Square and the West Side
Read more »
Image

VIDEOS



Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters





MOST READ

Columns\Op-Ed
A mother’s plea
  • Jul 22, 2019
Local News
Yours Drewly
  • Jul 19, 2019
Local News
The Chelsea Hotel: A never-ending story
  • Jul 16, 2019
Local News
Generation Z on the cb
  • Jul 16, 2019
Local News
Why the lights went out
  • Jul 16, 2019

MOST COMMENTED